The predictions of impending doom from Wall Street’s talking heads continued this past week. The reasons for a pullback are many: The stock market has rallied for too long and has gone up too smoothly, the Federal Reserve is about to remove the bond buying that has helped prop markets up, taxes are ready to rise, economic data are slowing. None of it really left a mark.
But then the
dropped 0.6%, to 4432.99, over the week, while the
Dow Jones Industrial Average
fell 0.1%, to 34,584.88, and the
slumped 0.5%, to 15,043.97. For the S&P 500, it was the first close since June 18 below its 50-day moving average—a technical measure of the previous 50 days’ closes that often ends up acting as support or resistance and that currently sits at 4436.35. For traders, it was very frightening.
That the drop also occurred on options expiration day—when options bets expire and are rolled over, typically a volatile day—also makes the moment fraught. Since May, options expiration has been the time for the S&P 500 to make a quick test of its 50-day moving average before a bounce higher. And when I say quick, I mean quick, as it usually took the index a day, maybe two, to rebound.
“The 50-Day MA discussion has been pounded into our heads with every drawdown,” writes Frank Cappelleri, desk strategist at Instinet. “And while we may be sick of hearing about it, the dip buying around the line has been a real phenomenon.”
This time has a different feel to it. The S&P 500’s sojourn near the 50-day has been longer, notes Jonathan Krinsky, chief market technician at Bay Crest Partners. It’s been sitting near it for about six trading days now, without a big drop or big bounce. “The current set-up looks a bit more like a consolidation on the 50 DMA, as opposed to the prior quick ‘V-shaped’ dips,” Krinsky writes. “What we are saying is that the current way in which we got here feels a bit different than the last four to five times.”
Still, Krinsky acknowledges that one close below the 50-day isn’t enough to panic. That’s because the S&P 500 has now gone 218 days without two closes below the average, the second-longest streak since 1990. We won’t know if that streak breaks until the end of trading on Monday.
The market has plenty of excuses to break the 50-day, if it’s so inclined. Maybe Evergrande (ticker: 3333.Hong Kong), the troubled Chinese property developer, will prove to be a Lehman moment and bring the world’s markets down with it. Maybe the Fed will surprise everyone and start tapering this coming week. Maybe something is lurking out there like the Baba Yaga of the old fairy tales, and maybe it looks a lot like Keanu Reeves.
But perhaps all the September weakness and worry are a good thing, setting the market up for its next run. “The ACWI is oversold again, and sentiment is not too optimistic,” writes Ned Davis Research’s Tim Hayes, commenting on the MSCI All-Country World Index. “The market’s resilience in the face of the negative September seasonality could be the preview of a bullish response to seasonal tendencies that turn favorable in the fourth quarter.”
We just have to get there first.
Write to Ben Levisohn at Ben.Levisohn@barrons.com